Mark Malcomson, CEO and principle of London-based college 'City Lit' since May 2011 has been honoured with a CBE in the 2016 honours list. While 'private' colleges like City Lit are thriving, state funded further education (FE) institutions are suffering. The elite may be able to access an education with a price tag but the National Union of Students' (NUS) is failing FE students.
Further Education students are the biggest single group within the NUS, but it certainly doesn't feel that way. As a sixth former I felt underrepresented, marginalised and left behind. NUS is seeking to reverse this injustice but there's a long way to go.
Colleges have less money and aren't necessarily getting the union support they need. The Association of Colleges estimates that college funding has fallen by 27% since 2010. FE students are one of the many groups which have fallen victim to cuts. And they don't all necessarily know about it.
Like most young adults in FE, Bea Isaacson didn't know that the NUS even 'represents' her. "It's no wonder students disassociate from the union and only use the card for a free McFlurry." Isaacson was only a fan of NUS because it meant a 20% student discount at Topshop. NUS seems to have failed her and many other sixth formers. NUS has become a service instead of a union. It's time we unify and change the system.
Shakira Martin could be the force needed to inform and improve students like Isaacson's education. Re-elected for a second term as NUS VP for FE, Martin's "full of energy" and ready to take on the challenge. Representing 4.1 million students she takes her role of "educating and inspiring" seriously and does so "at the bus stop, in the club loo and everywhere I can". She acknowledges that "you can't expect people to care if their needs aren't being fulfilled" and is aiming to deliver the"true voice for our generation" to a united NUS. It's an issue close to her heart- Martin's community (Lewisham) have had the "lifeline taken away from kids- people are literally dying because of them. Men are on streets doing things they know they shouldn't be because they can't afford education". She's approaching a modern issue using modern (and any) means possible and is possibly FE's best chance of salvation.
It's important that Martin and NUS help to lay the foundations for change but it's useless if students aren't aware. Many colleges don't have unions. Welsh student Ebbi Ferguson's college encountered this, "so I made one". But student council has never been sexy. Student politics has a bad reputation of being 'full of nutters' and doesn't gather much of a turn out. Even if students like Furgeson step up and create unions, it may not be enough to remedy the age old issue of apathy.
It's a two way street. If students want change, they need to be willing to turn up and protest for their rights. But with A Levels, BTECs and access courses time is short. For even the most politically engaged students it can be hard to prioritise the fight for freedom over your final grade. Active members of NUS (those attending conference and voting for representatives) who aren't in Higher Education are a minority.
Charley Hasted, Lambeth College student, is outraged at how "FE students make up 2/3 NUS membership. At the recent LGBT conference only 15/300 delegates were from FE institutions". They're not only underrepresented but also overcharged. "Because we have so little money we're regularly paying far more proportionally to access NUS yet tend to have less people here." Should students be charged based on how loudly (and effectively) the voice delivering their message shouts?
Many in FE have serious concerns that need to be adequately represented to authorities such as the government. Liverpool College student Ann Marie said that lack of funds stands between most Liverpudlians and the education they would otherwise pursue. "We're not like David Cameron and the rest of the blooming tories born with a silver spoon in our gobs". "I'm doing a level 2 photography course at the moment hoping to go to level 3. As an adult student I shouldn't have to take a loan out there should be free education for all". But Ann Marie is lucky, many students aren't making it to level 2 courses and figures show the numbers participating (in the first two quarters of 2015/16) fell by 21.4% compared to the previous year.
Times are tough for FE students. The government has let us down and we need a middle man to bargain on our behalf. NUS hasn't stepped up to defend the rights of all students yet. Martin seems to be leading students in the right direction but we have to turn up, turn out and participate to change the landscape. It's time NUS means more than a McFlurry.